Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Jim Nason

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Jim Nason

Poet and fiction writer Jim Nason's newest book is the provocatively titled novel I Thought I Would Be Happy (Tightrope Books). From Mount Olympus to New York City, the story follows characters who long for more and who, whether they get what they want or not, have to ask themselves whether it is all worth it — and why they want what they want in the first place.

Jim talks to Open Book today about wishing his characters would cut each other some slack, spontaneous titling and the relationship between happiness and fear.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, I Thought I Would Be Happy.

Jim Nason:

Marco Morelli is an aspiring filmmaker with a passion for heights, mostly high-rise buildings. He has recently had a brain tumor removed and has decided to will himself into a state of well-being after reading about happiness and neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to adapt to life’s stressors. Marco’s partner Andreas Triandaphyllo, a Greek-Canadian ophthalmologist, wants to climb Mytikas, on Mount Olympus in honour of his recently deceased parents. On their journey, the two men encounter Manya, a drop-dead gorgeous art teacher from Manhattan. Carrying her famous grandmother’s ashes, Manya is training to run the Mount Olympus marathon. Manya was an inspiring character to write — she is loyal, strong and over-the-top creative — I loved writing about her relationship with Andreas and Marco as well as her two dads and her mother, Marina.


How did the character of Marco evolve for you? What was most pleasurable and most difficult about writing Marco?


I had been reading Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself and was inspired by his stories of people overcoming adversity by consciously manipulating the way they think about their challenges. Marco is fed up with his job as a cameraman and he seems uncertain about his relationship — it was fun to create a character who uses a technique like the one discussed in Doidge’s book to move towards happiness.

Marco is not very nice to Andreas at times and I found that hard to write. He is self-absorbed and sometimes doesn’t reciprocate Andreas’ affection — I found myself saying out loud at times: Come on Marco, cut the guy some slack.


Greek mythology plays a role in this book. What drew you to these myths? Was this an interest of yours previously, or did it emerge while you were writing?


I had been reading The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. The Greek myths that are retold in this book by Roberto Calasso are fascinating and it is almost impossible not to be inspired by them. Whether it be through science, religion, or mythology, we are constantly trying to make sense of the world — these things fitted together nicely as I started thinking about these characters. The only thing I knew for sure when I started writing was I wanted this book to be an adventure. I wanted my characters to travel and show the reader the world through their eyes — hence, a cameraman (Marco), painter (Manya) and ophthalmologist (Andreas).


Tell us a little about the title. How did you settle on it? What does it mean for the characters?


The title happened very spontaneously one day at my day job. I had received a fax with some good news about a promotion of sorts. I looked at my co-worker who was standing next to me as I read the fax and said: I thought I’d be happy. I knew instantly that the book was on its way. I had never written anything where the title came first. For Marco, happiness is physiological, of the brain. For Andreas, happiness is something that existed in the past, before death and betrayal. For Manya, happiness is forgiveness. All three have limited notions of happiness and are trying to figure that out.


Marco is enthusiastic about heights, something that scares most people. Fear and happiness emerge as connected themes in the book. In what ways are fear and happiness connected for your characters?


Fear of the unknown holds people back. In this book, high places are frightening but, they also represent freedom.


What are you reading now? And what were you reading while working on I Thought I Would Be Happy?


I usually read several books at once. I am reading the Journey Prize Stories as well as Jane Hirshfield’s poetry collection, Come Thief. I’m also having lots of fun with Raymond Queneau’s Exercise in Style.

While I was working on the novel I was reading Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World; Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself; John Berger’s About Looking; and, the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness.


What are you working on now?


I am working on a novel called Spirit of a Hundred Thousand Dead Animals. The book was inspired by a visit to an old veterinary college in Scotland. My protagonist is a veterinarian who is raising her grandson on her own. The most interesting thing I can do when I write is to discover something as I go along — I’m learning tons about animals as well as raising children and loving it!

I am simultaneously working on a collection of short stories called Juice Monkey, inspired by the Toronto blackout in August of 2003; and, I’m writing a series of poems tentatively titled: Wolves, Tissue, Vase.

I can’t help myself … I often work on multiple fiction and poetry projects. I grab inspiration while it is here and refuse to limit myself. I free-fall best through the act of writing poetry; poetry is non-linear and taps into the creative side of my brain. I often use poetic techniques to kick-start a story. To be inspired and moved by multiple voices is a gift I gladly accept.

P.S. I thought I’d be happy and I am.

Jim Nason Jim Nason graduated from McGill University with an MA in English Literature. He also holds degrees from Ryerson and York Universities. His award-winning poems, essays and stories have been published in literary journals and anthologies across the United States and Canada, including The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008 & 2010. His fourth collection of poetry Music Garden will be published in 2013 (Frontenac House). Jim has also published a novel, The Housekeeping Journals and a short story collection, The Girl on the Escalator. Jim has been a Finalist for the CBC Literary Award in both the fiction and poetry categories.

For more information about I Thought I Would Be Happy please visit the Tightrope Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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